Shafquat Rabbee

Should the state dictate how to speak and use Bangla?

February 28, 2012

21-februarySome folks with love for Bangla and power in hand are passing busy days in Bangladesh. The honourable prime minister has just confirmed that it will be mandatory for all “basic cellular phones” to have Bangla keyboards. And a few days ago the high court pronounced a ruling against “distorted” Bangla language in local radio and television channels. Let’s discuss why these directives are noble and honest in their intent, but unfortunately, are un-realistic and counter-productive.

Let’s start with the idea of controlling “language pollution” in FM radio channels and TV programs. It is undoubted that several of these outlets are broadcasting a strange version of Bangla language which is almost foreign to our culture. Like many others, I also want this strange “RJ Bangla”, as it is known these days, to just go away.

Ruling on “language pollution”

The latest ruling on “language pollution” resulted after a sub-editorial titled “Language Pollution is as destructive as River Pollution” was published in the vernacular Bangla daily the Prothom Alo.

In the ruling, honourable justice A H M Shamsuddin Chowdhury and justice Jahangir Hossain urged all to protect the purity and sanctity of the Bangla language. I truly think the honourable judges had the genuine intention of protecting Bangla language. However, I fear that the eventual outcome of their ruling, in my layman’s view, will be as follows:

1.) government agencies will be monitoring the language of only those channels or hosts  who are critical to the incumbent government,

2.) in the worst case scenario, a few such channels or hosts may get their licenses / jobs terminated,

3.) to facilitate the above points,  few retired-but-truly-eminent individuals will enter a smoke-filled room in Bangla Academy, only to produce a semi-useful guideline on “how to speak perfect Bangla”.

To illustrate the utility of such official guidelines, let’s talk about our Censor Certificate Board for Dhaliwoody cinemas which has an extended guideline of to-show’s and not-to-show’s. Reportedly, their not-to-show list includes, among many other interesting things, footage of women’s unclothed upper legs and belly-buttons. Despite such strict guidelines, my memory is vivid with images of these body parts of my favorite actresses Shabnoor and Poppy, albeit with transparent nets covering them. Such is the lameness of official guidelines.

Who owns the Bangla language?

It is interesting that in the court ruling, the honourable judges went on saying that the language of Bangla is the language of Bangabondhu, Rabindranath, Shahidullah, Lalon, and various other distinguished Bangalis. Unfortunately, I am not sure how many Bangalis were mentioned in that long list who are still alive and talking. Did anyone talk to these folks, particularly the younger ones?

Needless to say, a language is survived by the young and living, not the old and deceased. Take it or leave it, that is the way it has been for ages. This is why Daily Ittefaq had to start writing news in “Cholito Bangla Bhasha” in my life time, abandoning their historic ties to the “Shadhu Bangla Bhasha”. This is why Rabindranath still remains relevant for his easily understood Bangla writings, whereas Kaykobaad or Bankim Chandra is barely read — let’s just be honest. This is also why Bangladesh’s land ministry contemplates creating land documents in “Cholito Bangla Bhasha” moving away from “Shadhu”. All these points prove that like all other languages, Bangla is indeed like a river, which evolves and moves away from its past trying to stay relevant in the lives of its current users. Therefore, governments and courts are better off staying far from this delicate struggle of controlling a language’s direction.

Difficulties in controlling “language pollution”

Defining what could be considered destruction, distortion or pollution of a language is tricky. Did “Cholito Bangla Bhasha” destroy “Shadhu Bangla Bhasha”? Did we distort or destroy Bangla language when we systematically removed many Arabic and Persian words used by the educated Muslims of Bengal as found in Kazi Nazrul or Forrukh Ahmed’s writing? Does inclusion of English words, many of which have less-convenient Bangla translations, destroy Bangla language? I simply do not know the answer for any of these. All I know governments and courts are not the places where I would look for answers on these.

However, given that our nation state is already inclined to interfere in its citizen’s linguistic and cultural lives, what I propose is that the government create financial incentives for our radio/TV channels so that they create attractive entertainment for our youth using proper Bangla. For example, kids of today are watching peculiar Japanese cartoons dubbed in Hindi. Some of these kids neither know proper Bangla nor Hindi; let alone English. Let’s stop this nonsense first, before we regulate Bangla usage of the folks who are honestly struggling to produce entertainment in our mother tongue.

By the way, does anyone know what the plans are for regulating strange Bangla usage in Indian channels like Tara Bangla or Zee Bangla? Who got the job for checking the pronunciation of the ministers, MPs, secretaries, or judges? And lastly, who are we kidding again?

Bangla Keyboards on Basic Mobile Phones

Let’s now talk about the idea of banning import of “basic cell phones” without Bangla keyboards. Although not hard to implement technically, this idea is still lame at its core. The peculiarity of this idea is in the term “basic”. With this term, the government has created a “loophole” for the rich and the powerful smart-phone users, so that their 50,000 taka iPhones or Android phones are out of reach of this ban. The middle-class and the poor are once again asked to carry the burden of the government’s love for Bangla, since they are the ones buying basic phones.

Using a 12-14 digit basic number pad for typing 60+ letter Bangla words, with all our joint letters, is a difficult task. Despite all the difficulties, our folks are still expressing their thoughts in Bangla; they are just using English alphabets to do so.

Bangla is yet to have universally recognised fonts that work across software and operating systems. If the government is sincere with its intent, I recommend they allocate money and resources towards the following:

1.) simplifying Bangla spelling and syntax by using Bangla Academy’s expertise,

2.) creating truly global and platform-neutral Bangla fonts and typing solutions, and

3.) popularising Bangla SMS using only Bangla alphabets (no English alphabets allowed!). I am not sure about the utility of the item (3), but still leaving it here since this is exactly what the government is trying to achieve.

My fear is that unnecessary regulatory burdens and government interventions will only encourage the new generation to limit their usage of the Bangla language. The new generation may end up completely hooked up with languages like Hindi and English, which I fear is already the case. Misguided regulations and government interventions will only make things worse.

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Shafquat Rabbee is a freelance contributor.

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14 Responses to “ Should the state dictate how to speak and use Bangla? ”

  1. smashing bangali on May 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Sri Sri Rabbee,
    Please be careful about making comments about the honourable and powerful people of the country. You should not forget about the fate of sri Mahmood ur Rahman and others.
    Please have some respect for the powerful people and learn to honour them.

  2. Saif Khan on March 1, 2012 at 1:20 am

    Very well written, thought-out and objective article. Government or state cannot control the flow, change or usage of the language. It never did. Population will use, change adapt to the language. When government cannot attend to most vital responsibilities, it gets in to these kind of initiatives for their ulterior motive. The Father of the nation used to talk in his native Faridpur dialect even in public forum. “Tomader Kesu debar Parmuna” and so forth. Was he polluting the language? Or was that the standard. Who will decide? It is better that the government or any similar authority did not dictate these type of issue. Good luck Bangladesh.

  3. KotoAjana on February 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the comments of Menoka Chowdhury and Ezajur Rahman .

  4. Syed Imtiaz Ali on February 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    Thanks for initiating the topical subject. Some think language belongs to the privileged few and those who wield power, past or present! But language belongs to those who speak it and those who cultivate it.
    Sermonizing or dictation will not help, as Bangla like any other living and rich language, will ‘develop’ further only if left alone to time and people.

    Let us increase the size of our mind to be able to accommodate Bangla’s enrichment, use, nurturing and receptivity. A living language will have changes to it. That is the norm.
    Bottom line — RAISE the level of education, help develop readership, allow ease of thinking, reduce the cost of publication and we can see the mellowed fruit.

    Joy Bangla!

  5. Menoka Chowdhury on February 29, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    The language has its own course of action. It flows like a river. If the river is not trained it will devour both sides of its ways and silt its route blocking the movement for the human beings. Similarly, it is the responsibility of the state to train the flow of language. The patriots have to raise voice against the pollutants in the language. All that is incorporated in the language are not pollutants. It is the responsibility of the people who have kept contribution to the development of knowledge, who understand the value of the language should speak for the purity of the sanctity of the language. We may follow BBC in this respect. BBC does not allow its own stuff to speak they way they want to. The employees (who give voice) have to follow the norms.

    It is very often seen that children of thieves and thugs who have accumulated wealth without paying taxes to the state, send their children in such places which have less respect for our cultures. Because our culture does not accept the children of thugs and plunderers. These children even take pride in not knowing Bangla well. As a matter of fact, they even do not know English as well. They are almost like a person who is straddling two boats.

    Save our language, save our culture, save our heritage. Without these we will lose our identity. In Briatin, the Bangladeshi origin children love to call themselves British origin muslims – not British origin Bangali. It is because they have lost their identity as Bangali.

    On the other hand – a French will never speak in English (for genearl purpose). A Japanese will not speak in English even in state affairs, despite the fact that they are well conversant in English.

    The more rich a country is, the less they like to speak foreign language and distortion of their their own language. For example – Japan, China, Korea, Russia, France, Germany and many more .

    • Shafquat Rabbee on February 29, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      BBC, CNN, or for that matter any news channel tries to “brand” itself. Branding inherently requires standardization. The language control is part of the standardization effort. BBC Bangla and VOA Bangla both used a distinct “tone” for their Bangla service. People over the years have associated these services to that “tone”, which is classic example of “brand” formation and “brand” maintenance. Love for language may have also played a part in it.

      There are few distinct “cultural” phenomenon that are left in Bangladesh anymore that are distinctly Bengali or confined to the nation-state of Bangladesh. From our weddings to various other ceremonies, I do not personally see anything that is “distinctly” Bengali or Bangladeshi anymore. Therefore, there should be no wonder that British Bangalis are associating themselves as British-Muslims rather than British-Bengalis. Similar situation exists all over the world for expatriate communities. Expatriate Bengalis simply do not possess the right tools to energize their foreign raised generation to associate themselves with the Bengali culture, even if something like that ever existed. Ekushe February Shahid Minar and 1971 has a very defined and limited purpose when it comes to the everyday lives of a foreign raised kid. It is our collective failure that we could not sustain a distinct Bengali culture to hand over to our children raised abroad. I blame the over-enthusiast Bengalis for this, because their overflow of love for Bangla is still confined in a Rabindrik era, which is absolutely worthless for a new generation Bangladeshi kid, let alone a foreign raised Begali kid. For the new generation, there is hardly any worthy entertainment that is produced in Bangla. Ask me, I know this. Every year we spend thousands buying children’s book from Ekushe Boi Mela. Selling them to my daughter is always a struggle, due to lack of focus / quality of our publishers and writers.

      Which culture sustains there language is probably not related to how strong their economy is. Spanish folks all over the world are known for nurturing their language even while living outside a Spanish speaking country. Majority of the Spanish speaking countries are Third World. On the other hand, Koreans or Chinese folks are known for taking English names and culture once they are outside their countries. Japanese are hardly outside their country, so cannot speak for them. Only linguistic nationalists left in the world are French and Germans. More so for the French, and the world know by now where they are heading economy and culture-wise.

      I personally do not feel any pride in addressing a foreign gathering in my own language. This type of attitude is anti-knowledge and defies diplomatic needs. Knowing more languages equally well and confidently be able to converse on a foreign language infront of foreigners in a global forum brings more pride for a nation, in my view. When someone is in United Nations for example, I believe its better to address the crowd in ANY language that is understood by the majority of the people being addressed. This serves the main purpose of the communication, i.e., communicate. Learned folks of the past, including our own Bengali sages of the past, knew multiple languages. They were polyglots, not ignorant linguistic-nationalists.

      Sorry I have very strong views on these.

  6. russel on February 29, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    well articulated Mr.Rabee. i think political legislation won’t be overcome to control over the cultural flow either it is language or trends.Only because the wave of river’s flow doesn’t hear of others directions.So let it be done.No mandatory test won’t be able to win here.

  7. jamal on February 29, 2012 at 1:17 am

    Maybe you should start expressing your opinions regarding this matter in Bengali first!

    • Shafquat Rabbee on February 29, 2012 at 9:49 pm

      Point taken. Can you also elaborate a little what you found missing in the article which could have been better discussed in Bangla? We understand the readership argument, but what else?

  8. MBI Munshi on February 28, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    A very mature and thoughtful article.

    • Shafquat Rabbee on February 29, 2012 at 10:09 pm

      Thank you Mr. Munshi. If you are that Mr. Munshi who wrote one of the greatest books on BD-India relation, I am honored.

      • MBI Munshi on March 1, 2012 at 7:16 pm

        I did write a book on Indo-Bangladesh relations and am humbled by your generous comments. I believe that if you continue writing articles of this standard you will one day become a renowned writer and an important opinion-maker of the country. Please keep up the good work.

  9. Ezajur Rahman on February 28, 2012 at 10:02 pm

    Misguided regulations and government interventions will indeed make matters worse. But the real cuplrit for the current trend is the hijacking of our language by our political classes. Rarely has a language been so abused on a daily basis by liars, cheats and hypocrites on the national stage. Starved of English for decades we now grasp at it desperately. Force fed the politics of the Bangla language we turn away from it reluctantly. Deprived of the oxygen of modernisation by those who thrive on the past Bangla does not seem to meet the needs of the present.

    Reform our politics. Stop the daily drenching of Bangla in hypocrisy and lies by our political Establishment. Free our minds, free our history, free our culture from the Frankenstein of our politics and Bangla will swiftly return to being a dynamic and modern language.

    • Shafquat Rabbee on February 29, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      I am no linguist, but I do have some knowledge of the Bangla language. To get technical on the linguistic side, I can say that over the last 40+ years, Bangla language has been systematically hijacked by the lovers of the past. The language as it stand today is devoid of diversity and vitality. For example, the language systematically removed various persian, arabic, portugeze, to some lesser extent latin origin words. Currently the language predominantly has Shangskreet origin words. This was done by misguided political hatred towards our past rulers. Now there are only a handful of words that have multiple commonly used synonyms. The language is very rigid in adaptation to both technological words or modern day urban / slang language. These may sound silly, but they are instrumental in a language’s vitality. Lastly, by trying to strengthen Bangla, some fools went against English. The result is simple, Hindi is now the name of the game. Devoid of proper English skills, the general public’s consumption of world knowledge is limited to Bangla or Hindi. This is a death spiral for a language.

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